I’ve wanted to visit the Wild Turkey Distillery for a very long time because, quite simply, they make some of my favorite whiskey on the planet. I love the spice, the sweetness the… everything. Wild Turkey just makes great whiskey, but until recently I’ve never been there and between you and me it felt like a little piece of me was missing. For whiskey geeks, distilleries are our holy land. It’s the pilgrimages we make to see the spirit we love so much crafted and created. I always leave appreciating what I’m drinking a little bit more after seeing all the work and thought that goes into making it.
Earlier this month I was invited to be a part of Wild Turkey’s Behind the Barrel program where they take journalists and booze writers out to Kentucky to see exactly what goes on out there. After a long day of flights (there isn’t a direct from LAX to Louisville) I landed in Kentucky, met up with my fellow booze writers and we immediately set out doing what we do best. Drinking and discussing what we’re drinking. After an evening of drinking Wild Turkey (like the Tradition pictured above) we turned in to get get some rest for what was surely going to be a fantastic day.
Tour day started early, we were on the bus and on our way to Vendome Copper Works before most people were even at work, but that’s for another post. After taking an incredible tour of Vendome, seeing how stills, mash tuns, etc. were made, we were off to a morning of skeet shooting which is where we met Jimmy & Eddie. Jimmy was larger than life and had an infectious smile that spread to all of us after humbly introducing himself and his son, never once acting like he expected us to know how he was, but what lover of America’s Native Spirit doesn’t know of the Buddha of Bourbon? To be honest, I felt a little star struck and lost my voice for a beat. This was a man with some serious history behind him.
After teaching the city slickers how to shoot clay pigeons, we climbed back on the bus and Jimmy came with us. On the ride to the distillery he regaled us with stories about the area and things that had happened along the years as we wound our way through the countryside. Sooner than expected the winding treelined roads began to open up and the warehouses and water tower of Wild Turkey began peeking out through the foliage. If you’ve never been, Wild Turkey sits on a breathtakingly beautiful stretch of land that’s as quiet and serene as anything you can imagine. I wanted to setup a tent and never leave.
After a few minutes standing around, admiring the grounds, we were escorted into the visitor’s center which has been aptly name the cathedral of bourbon. The inside of the VC is gorgeous. Big sweeping arches of blackened and natural wood, reminiscent of a barrel, leading up the the angels view which overlooks the grounds. A slowly downward sloping ramp to the right of it that went through the history of the Wild Turkey Distillery. The bottom of the latter is where we collected for a quick lunch with Jimmy and Eddie and then, the tour began.
The tour started at their new distillery with Eddie leading the way. Outside he pointed out their grain silos and we chatted about the insane amounts of grain delivered each day to make Wild Turkey. From there we went inside and saw their cookers / mash tubs and Eddie walked us through the process of going from raw grain to mash. This is where we learned that unlike most distilleries, who grind their mashbill till it’s almost a powder, Wild Turkey likes to use a courser grind making their mash thick and chunky.
This was visually apparent when we moved into the fermentation room. The carbon dioxide bubbles created by the yeast were churning up a much different looking mash. than I had seen at the George Dickel Distillery the month before. Looking at the active moving mash I could see how it was more like a chunky cornmeal than the smooth polenta like quality of Dickel’s. Though like GD Wild Turkey also utilizes an open air fermentation process.
From there it was off to the still house which wasn’t just hot, it was hellaciously hot. We were there on a fairly temperate day and the second we stepped through the door sweat started pouring down all of us. The amount of heat coming off of their enormous still was incredible. Here Eddie talked about the old still at the old Wild Turkey Distillery and how it was all manual and consisted of wheels and valves that would be adjusted through out the day based what was going on, but that now it’s mostly done remotely through their command center, which is where we went next, so no one had to suffer through the heat.
Wild Turkey’s command center looked like something out of a sci-fi movie, like looking at the plumbing for the DeathStar. Screens filled with images of tubs, tubes, flashing lights and shifting words; keeping the man behind the screens informed of everything that was happening or, in a worst-case-scenario, wasn’t happening. From this room they can monitor, manage and basically make Wild Turkey. A computer can help you manage the process, but it can’t tell you how good a whiskey is. That, at least for now, still takes a human with tastebuds and a working olfactory system. Which is why we headed to the sensory lab next, but what happened there, and after that, is going to have to wait until tomorrow for part 2 of this little Wild Turkey Distillery tour.
Thanks for reading so far and hope to see you tomorrow for part 2 of the Wild Turkey Distillery tour when we pick this back up and checkout the sensory lab, bottling plant, do a wild turkey whiskey tasting and finally end up in the oldest rickhouse at the distillery.